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The Orgin Of Comedy Essay, Research Paper

Professor Jim Gray of Sonoma State University defines culture as a means of survival. Going by this definition of culture the evolution of black humor has definitely been a foundation in the survival of the comedy in America. This paper will be a discussion of how African American Humor has evolved and for centuries has changed and continues to change the way we look at comedy. Before beginning this paper, I must stress the importance of humor for all races. Truly, the environment in which most humor takes place has helped American culture and people survive. According to Constance Rourke, humor is important because: “1. Humor is a part of the natural life process and is commonly taken for granted or not recognized as having serious importance. The fact that humor is a framework for `non-real’ or `play’ activity and not taken as a `serious’ interaction allows messages and formulations to be `risked’ within its framework which would not otherwise be acceptable or possible. 3. Humor allows the exploration of new ideas in situations of uncertainty or unfamiliarity. Similarly allowed are the negotiation of taboo topics, sensitive issues, and marginal serious content. 4. Humor performs a boundary function on both internal and external lines, policing groups in terms of membership and acceptable and competence behavior. 5. Humor can function as a coping device to release tension, allay fear, forestall threat, defuse aggression or distance the unpleasant.6. Humor can represent an implicit contradiction, paradox or `joke in the social structure’ made explicit. The `joke’ constitutes a reversal within its boundaries of the patterns of control in the real world. 7. `Canned’ jokes and `situational’ jokes are not entirely separate. Canned jokes are not sealed from the situation in which they are told as they always affect it and incorporate interaction into their pattern; situation jokes always have some impact beyond their context.

Langston Hughes says, “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it. Of course, you laugh by proxy. You’re really laughing at the other guy lacks, not your own. That’s what makes it funny-The fact that you don’t know you are laughing at yourself. Humor is when the joke is on you but hits the other fellow first-Because it boomerangs. Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh. Humor is your unconscious therapy” (Hughes, 1966) Laughter for centuries has been the medicine that has helped to ensure the survival of African Americans.

“Herded together with others with whom they shared only a common condition of servitude and some degree of cultural overlap, enslaved Africans were compelled to create a new language, a new religion, and a precarious new lifestyle.” (Joyner, 1984) As Africans were unloaded by boat and placed onto plantations, slave masters were completely enthralled by the way they spoke, moved, and danced. Out of slavery emerged a culture that would influence America’s mainstream culture for infinity. Slavery created bondage for Africans and when it looked like they were going nowhere fast; they laughed, sang, and amused one another with riddles, jokes and animal tales from the homeland. Slave masters could not conceive why slaves in such a miserable state were so joyous, what they did not know was many of the songs, jokes and riddles were more than surface deep and many times about the master. The slaves made the best of the circumstances through humor and by laughing at the way the slave master treated them and their reaction to this treatment. They were laughing at the slave master and at the same time laughing at themselves. However, it did not take long before slave masters made slave merry-making public. Many times slaves were called upon to entertain master and their guests. Slave merry-making was also encouraged because it also increased the price of the slaves. “People took notice to the way slaves spoke and moved, out of slavery evolved Blackface Humor.” (Watkins, 1994)

Blackface comedy was when a person (white) painted their face with black makeup and acted like a slave (Sambo). Blackface humor gave whites the chance to lift African American Humor from its original context, transform it, then spotlight it as their own entertainment, amusement (for non-black audiences) it became popular for it is supposed originality.

As blackface entertainment became more popular so did the actors. George Washington Dixion introduced “Coal Black Rose” (Watkins) one song “Sambo and Cuffee”, (Watkins) was a comic song about a black woman and her lover. Dixion performed this act all over the world; some would argue that Dixion was the first white blackface performer to establish a broad reputation.

By the 1830’s, blackface performers were everywhere becoming one of the most popular attractions of the American stage.

Billy Whitlock, Frank Brower, Frank Pelham and Dan Emmett were also very popular blackface performers. Dixion created the one man, show but these

men created a troupe of blackface performers. They also firmly established the image of blacks as happy-go-lucky plantation darkies, outrageously dresses and ignorant. Although there were other blackface performers before them, these men were the only ones who could give a real show from the makeup to the costume.

“By the 1840’s blackface performances had reached an unprecedented level of national popularity.”(Watkins) There were many performance troupes, even professional juvenile troupes. Each followed a standard; they had a three-act presentation. The first act opened up with a walkaround where the entire troupe came out made up in face paint and dressed in suits. They than gathered in a semicircle to alternate comic songs and jokes. Here is a common type of joke many used; it is called;

“Mr. Bones” and “Mr. Tambo”:

Mr. Bones: “Mr. Tambo sir!”

Mr. Tambo: “Yes, Mr. Bones”

Mr. Bones: “Does us black folks go to hebbin? Does we go through dem golden gates?”

Mr. Tambo: “Mr. Bones, you know the golden gates is for white folks.”

Mr. Bones: “Well, who’s gonna be dere to open demm gates for you white folks?”

For many of the white people watching the show the most funny and exciting part was the joke telling. In the second act-the “olio or variety segment”- was the stump speech speaker. This occured when one member performed a comic, black version of a topic. Topics would range from, emancipation, women’s suffrage, education or another current political or scientific topic. The goal was to show how blacks could not comprehend nor interpret sophisticated ideas. The third and final part of the show was a slapstick plantation skit, featuring song and dance with costumed men and women dressed as slaves.

After the Civil War, blackface troupes hired on free black men and women to perform with them. White audiences became upset and angry at many troupes. After the war and emancipation – during the reconstruction period constitutional amendments were passed to assure civil rights and voting rights for former slaves and some blacks were elected members of the House and Senate; Whites wanted to be assured that blacks were still inferior and blackface troupes were not showing this by continuing to hire blacks. Therefore, audiences depleted, and many troupes that had incorporated blacks started to perform on circuits like the “Chitlen circuit,” which hit most black owned theaters. Blacks who were part of the troupes started to branch off and start their own troupes. In doing this, they altered the usual blackface performance routine. First, they altered song lyrics, instead of singing songs that downgraded blacks; songsters would play on white fears and mock them. Many blacks took off the face paint and introduced musical comedies.

Black musical comedies made many black performers successful. White already loved black music so the musical comedy fit right into the market. Still many of these comedies were on the circuit, and confined to black theaters.

It was not until later that musical comedies were featured on Broadway. When musical comedies appeared on Broadway “Lyles and Miller a very successful team created a whole new approach to the comedies.”(Watkins) They presented at the end of their acts a group of women who danced and sang with the stereotypical attitude many felt black urban women had. This simple addition astounded Broadway and critics raved. Eventually, every black troupe evolved to use this form. Black Musical Comedies took blacks to another level of comedy yet, they were unable to shake the sambo stereotypical image given to them by white blackface performers.

“Licensed radio was introduced in 1920, because of the low budget and inadequate facilities, news shows and music provided by local groups dominated the airwaves. By 1922, there were over 522 licensed stations and radio sales increased from $1million in 1920 to $400million in 1925. By 1929, one in every three homes owned radios ten years later there was a radio in almost every home. Radio was a medium where its listeners could hear concerts, comic monologues, sporting events and political speeches as they happened.”(MacDonald, 1981)

Radio at first initially ignored blacks, as in the blackface performance days they were imitated by whites. In 1925, Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll a minor duo debuted as musicians on a radio station in Chicago. They played at this radio station for a while and later moved to a station owned by the Chicago Tribune. There they were approached by management about doing a broadcast edition to the comic strip “The Gumps.” The two refused the offer but suggested an alternative, a black – dialect show. Gosden and Correll made a series based on two black names “Sam ‘N’ “Henry”, which would later become known as “Amos ‘N’ “Andy”. Sam ‘N’ Henry debuted on January 12, 1926 (Dunning, 1925-1976) The characters Sam and Henry still depended on the stereotypical images of blacks created during the blackface (minstrel) performance years. Blacks were superstitious, na ve, easily influenced, lazy, ignorant and conniving. On March 19, 1928, three months after the “Sam” ‘N’ “Henry” show had been cancelled, “Amos” ‘N’ “Andy” mysteriously appeared on a rival station in Chicago. Gosden and Correll had come up with the idea presented it to the station and it was accepted. This show was far more successful than Sam and Henry; Amos N Andy was recorded and leased to forty other radio stations. In August 1929, Pepsodent became the first major sponsor of a black comedy show. Amos N Andy was the number one show in the country. By 1935, 70 percent of American home (40 million) listeners tuned in each night. Sayings from the show hit the streets “Ain’t dat sumptin’,” “Splain dat to me’,” and “Holy Mackerel” became popular.

Even with its popularity, the show had a down time. Radio stations modernized their broadcast methods; comedians were no longer forced to work

without an audience. This is when variety shows begin to take the market. In 1943, Gosden and Correl returned to the air with a thoroughly revamped half an hour version of “Amos” ‘N’ “Andy”. The show was performed before a live audience and featured an orchestra and chorus. “Amos” ‘N’ “Andy” represented a breakthrough for black comedians on radio and television as well.

Although one-person acts were not popular during the variety show period, Moms Mabley set the stage for many comedians that would come after her. Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Born in North Carolina in 1897, Mabley grew up in Cleveland Ohio, by the time she was sixteen she had became a stage performer. She began as a dancer and singer and dabbled in comedy. During the 1920’s, she was performing on the chitlen circuit in Dallas, where another teams saw her act and helped her get better bookings. Like many performers, she appeared in skits with other performers at first. However, Mabley did not like this and she was one of the first comics to turn to monologue humor. She appeared on the stage with oversized clodhoppers, tattered gingham dresses and oddball hats she acted like a typical down to earth older black woman. Mabley worked with many performers but she did her best when she was alone. She was famous for her costume and her shuffle, she would sing some comical version of a popular song, tell stories or just stand there and the audience loved it. Mabley foreshadowed the shift to direct social commentary and stand up comic techniques that would dominate humor and comedians to come.

Dick Gregory, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Steve Allen, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldburg, Eddie Murphy, and many other popular black and white comedians have evolved from the history of comedy. The images that were passed on from slavery still thrive at the root of jokes many comedians of today tell. Black comedians have finally gotten away from the white interpretation of black humor and created original black humor from an African American perspective to the world. Black comedy has come to be the voice of the struggle, pain, and joy African American people have gone through and are continuing to going through. Humor will continue to be a driving force to bring people of all ethnicities together to laugh at the good and bad times of our country. Without humor, would we really survive?

Black Humor A Survival Strategy

Works Cited

1. Hughes, Langston. The Book of Negro Humor. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1966

2. Joyner, Charles. Down by the riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

3. MacDonald, J. Fred. Don’t Touch That Dial! Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981.

4. Rourke Constance. American Humor: A study of the National Character. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Harvest, 1931.

5. Watkins, Mel. On The Real Side. New York: Touchstone, 1994

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